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Boston’s Chinatown Storefront Library

By David Cheng

More than half a century has passed since Boston’s Chinatown residents last had a place of their own to just sit down and read.  Instead of theaters that lined Washington Street in the 1950s, today there are restaurants, grocery stores and street vendors — plenty to satisfy an appetite, but books have been a different story.

On October 14, a long-awaited vision for a Chinatown Library finally became reality.  With 3,000-square-feet of space contributed for three months by Archstone Apartments the Chinatown Storefront Library opened at 640 Washington St.  It will rely on donations from publishers and area families. Supporters hope this project can lead to a more permanent home. It already won an extra month from Archstone, when it extended the lease.

“The project was conceived as a temporary library for several reasons.  One was to activate vacant space along Washington Street.  The Boston Street Lab, one of the producers of this project, has a mission to take vacant spaces and use them in more creative ways to bring more street life.  So the idea was to really partner with an organization that could actually donate space,” said Amy Cheung, the library’s program manager.

“The other idea is that we actually want the city at one point to step in and open a permanent library so this is almost an experiment or demonstration project to show to the city and residents and the supporters what the potential of the library could be –but we’re not here to provide permanent services.”

Six years ago, the Chinese Youth Initiative, a branch of the Chinese Progressive Association, decided that a library  was vital but missing resource in Chinatown.  Their participation only went as far as getting the library idea launched.  After that, a team of the Boston Street Lab, Friends of the Chinatown Library, and city’s Department of Micro-Urbanism raised funds for the venture, Cheung said.

“I think a library in Chinatown is incredibly important because it serves several different functions.  It serves as a social meeting space for people, it serves as sort of the front line place for people to get resources.  It serves as a place for people to get books and materials, reading resources, and right now Chinatown doesn’t have a library so I think there’s been a big gap for many years,” she added.

A large gap indeed.

The last time a library branch in  Chinatown opened its doors was the same year Elvis Presley first broke into the United States music charts and the only time a pitcher threw a perfect game in the World Series. The Tyler Street branch had closed in 1938, drawing protests and briefly reopened from 1951-56 , before it was demolished to make way for construction of the city’s Central Artery elevated highway — since replaced by the Big Dig‘s underground roadway.

But some residents don’t think the new library is a good idea.

“I don’t think that they put it in the right spot.  I mean just from experience of living in Chinatown I haven’t seen a lot of teenagers wandering around the city, at least around this area and I know the history of this area being the Combat Zone and all,” Tom Beauregard, a Chinatown resident.

“Yeah it’s cleaned up, but just from experience I’ve had people ask me if I wanted drugs just by walking on Washington Street right by where the new library is.  If I was a parent I don’t think I would want my kids hanging around that area regardless of the time of day.”

With school libraries available to students and the Internet offering research help everywhere, around-the-clock, there are some skeptics but response to the new library has been overwhelming, said Sam Davol, who coordinated the library project with Boston Street Lab.

“I think it’s great because I don’t think anybody in Chinatown would want to go down to Copley to go down to the library anyway, especially kids.  So it gives them a place that’s close by to learn and get off the streets,” said Hunter Hughes, an Emerson College student and current resident of Chinatown said.  “I mean, could it be used for anything more useful?  Honestly, not that I know of.  I think education for kids is very important.”

Chinatown Library Slideshow

(photos by David Cheng)


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Hub Shoppers Have Two Weeks To Hunt For Bargains

By Dave Cheng and Nicola Hassapis

Bells are ringing, lights are twinkling yet shoppers are waiting for last-minute sales or a chance to hold onto their hard-earned dollars a little longer in Boston’s downtown shopping district.

“People are definitely more conservative in their spending,” said Susan Ellis, who works in the cosmetics department at Macy’s in Downtown Crossing. “But we say the same thing every year and get panic-stricken, and then they all come out the last week.” Continue reading

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You Can Help – Tips For Giving

by Emily Holden

People who want to give but may not have the funds are finding other ways to support the causes and organizations who serve others at the holidays. Sometimes giving money is just not an option and new and gently used items can be just as helpful. Here are things to know about donating used goods, from Charity Navigator.

Determine whether the items are useful.

Clothing, household items, books and shoes may be gently-used but things like personal care items must be brand new for health and safety reasons. That means no opened bottles of lotion or makeup. Put yourself in the recipient’s position: If you wouldn’t wear the jeans with holes in the knees, chances are they wouldn’t either. Don’t donate anything that is unusable or beyond repair.

Start locally and find the right organization.

Additional transportation reduces the impact of your donation so avoid unnecessary travel to donation sites. Chances are you can find a charity right in your own neighborhood. Begin by looking in your local community for a charity that will accept your items. Schools, churches and government buildings or office buildings often act as collection centers for various causes and agencies.

Search to find a particular cause.

Organizations like Charity Navigator can help you find specific charities or organizations such as your local Salvation Army office. Log onto charitynavigator.org and you can search for specific groups looking for the items you wish to donate.

Consider selling items and donating the money to charity.

Selling things you own and contributing proceeds to a charity gives the recipient the greatest flexibility when it comes to choosing what it needs most. Also, by selling the items yourself, you eliminate any for-profit middle man that might take a cut of the donation. Great places to sell your items include eBay and Craig’s List. You may also consider holding a multifamily yard sale and donating proceeds to a charity.

Happy giving!

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Charities See Growing Demands, Fewer Donations

by Cassandra Baptista

Boston charities are feeling the strain to meet a greater need for goods and services after two years of a difficult economy for non-profits and contributions of cash or goods.

“It looks like it’s a little tougher this year,” said Thomas Langdon, director of community relations and development for Boston’s office of The Salvation Army. “In past years, people really were stepping to the plate. We really haven’t been seeing that this year.”

There are few bills larger than $1 in the kettles these days. Based on the organization’s annual report statistics, the demand for more specific items and services has increased such as, meals, shelter, coats, and holiday gifts. For example, in the past year, the number of coats distributed increased reached 13,000. (Click for related story on goods donations and how you can help)

And he’s not alone. Wayne Pozzar, food acquisition associate at the Greater Boston Food Bank, has seen a decline in food donations. GBFB is a nonprofit organization that “distributes more than 30 million pounds of food annually…to a network of nearly 600 member hunger-relief agencies,” he said.

Pozzar explained that the organization’s 2008 hunger study found 90% of its member food pantries and soup kitchens agree that the demand in Boston is up.

“Companies seem to have less to spare,” he added. “Supermarkets are now putting out discount aisles.”

One measure of need is The Salvation Army served 1,189,694 meals so far this year—equal to almost two meals per Boston resident.

And to counter the projected decrease in donations, the Salvation Army put out kettles earlier this year, because of the increased need. But a different kind of donation came when representatives were setting up the kettles: 45 people offered not to donate, but to work.

“We’ve never experienced that before,” Landon said. “These are people who just can’t find work, so they’ll ring a bell for $8 an hour.”

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Hub Preps For Less “Ho” in Holidays

by Kelly Burnett

Decorations may be red-and-green but economists are finding a gray mood as shoppers head to the stores. High unemployment, shrinking consumer credit and limited holiday spending may crimp gift-giving in the Hub. Continue reading

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Some Trade Big $ Gifts for Crafts

by Maressa Levy

Bostonians are turning to alternative methods of holiday shopping, avoiding crowded malls and department stores in favor of area craft fairs.

Harvard Square’s Holiday Craft Fair is in its 24th season, featuring craftspeople and customers from all over New England. At the corner of Church Street and Massachusetts Avenue in the basement of the First Parish Unitarian Church, the fair runs for roughly 12 days throughout November and December and sells everything from wind chimes made from old cutlery to handmade soaps.

Leslie Gray is one on the founders, and said shopping at the fair provides a different environment than a traditional shopping mall, or even a small shop.

“Most days people just stream down the stairs, and the place fills up. People are here selling what they make, or are small businesses with a very definite connection to their crafts,” Gray said. “The atmosphere is very upbeat; I often say it’s like a party where you can buy stuff. Though there are ‘regular’ exhibitors, we try to bring in fresh talent every year, and encourage young craftspeople to apply.”

Gray added that despite the current economy, sales have remained high.

“The days have varied, but overall most (vendors) have been happy- I do think some people have the economy in mind, and have either lowered their prices or made things specifically at a lower price point,” Gray said. “Hopefully, the closer we get to Christmas the busier we’ll be.”

Just down the street, Harvard Square’s Cambridge Artists Cooperative (CAC) is a three-level gallery showcasing work by more than 250 artists from all over the United States.

Since 1989 the Co-op has been run entirely by artists, as an outlet for handmade American crafts.

Artist Marcia Dean creates jewelry and quilts for CAC, and has been a Co-op member and contributor since the gallery’s opening. She said the growing popularity of crafts has helped bring customers to the gallery.

“It’s been great for us. (The fair) drives more people to the Square to shop,” Dean said. “Unless an artist is just starting out, prices are pretty uniform; ornaments, rugs and jewelry are popular items, and they run from $12- $2000.”

While these events are popular, artisans are also turning to internet marketing to sell their goods, from self-launched merchandising websites to larger aggregator sites, like the popular craft site Etsy. And other Boston neighborhoods are seeing similar increases in both events and interest.

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Want to Sleep No More?

“Don’t be alarmed if you get there and it doesn’t look like much,” the receptionist at the American Repertory Theater tells me as I purchase my ticket to their latest production, Sleep No More. “It’s not really supposed to.”

From the outside, the Old Lincoln School in Brookline certainly doesn’t impose itself onto passerby, especially in the dark, blustery fall evening. Two ushers in black coats wait on the street to show you your way to the back entrance of the school, which is only the beginning of the maze that audience members must stumble through to experience the British “adventure theater” company Punchdrunk’s daring collaboration. This full-immersion experience is a collaboration with Cambridge-based A.R.T.

Winding through dark corridors lit by little flickering lights, you emerge into a swinging 1940s bar, where you are promptly handed a playing card and instructed to kick back and have a drink until that card is called. When summoned, you are instantly swept into Punchdrunk’s world of experimental theater. A cackling host hands out V-for-Vendetta-esque white masks, which audience members must wear at all times in the space, to distinguish themselves from the actors.

“A lot of people are looking for a more visceral theater experience,” says Mikhael Garver, the staff director for the show. “Punchdrunk is definitely the leader of doing that kind of performance internationally. No one does it with the level of depth and clarity than they do.”

Indeed, the production is more than just a performance – it is a sensory explosion. The abandoned school’s high ceilings and linoleum-tiled floors are completely transformed into eerie, elaborate scenes that host directors Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle have made into a living, breathing, largelysilent interpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth blended with Hitchcock’s 1940’s psychological thriller Rebecca. Add swarms of white faces floating in the darkness down dimly lit hallways, and the effect is completely surreal.

“The architecture in the school was exactly the kind of look and feel we wanted for the piece,” says Garver of the space. “We wanted a space to bring something to the table, and our design construction team made amazing use of beauty that already existed in this building.”

For city officials, the production is a bottom-line success and a critical one. Faced with the prospect of having to pay for the upkeep of the school after town hall employees moved out of its temporary office space in May, Brookline was relieved to have the theater swoop in and make such revolutionary use of the school.

“For us, it means there are many restaurants in Brookline Village that will be able to keep their lights on this fall because of the added foot traffic,” Kara Brewton, the town’s economic development director, told the Brookline TAB.

– Talia Ralph

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